One of the coolest things I’ve gotten to do in the last few years was whitewater rafting on the New River in West Virginia. It was the fun day activity for our final day of the senior high mission trip that year. No one in our group had ever been whitewater rafting before, so the excitement and fear levels were pretty high as we got ready.
The start of the trip was pretty easy, with our first set of rapids being pretty calm. There are five main classes for rapids. Class 1 is basically choppy water that you can swim through (we swam through two sets on our trip). They get progressively more difficult, with class 5 being the crazy whitewater stuff you see in the movies. You don’t want to swim in those.
As impressive as the rapids themselves are, I was more impressed with our guide. Her name was Aubie, and was, as she said, “doing the rafting guide thing to pay for my rock-climbing habit.” Every time she brought us to a set of rapids she would tell us the name of the rapid, its class and then would tell us how the boat was going to move through the rapids. She would also tell us what to do if we fell out (swim left, swim right, or just go with the flow).
By the third set of decent rapids Aubie had the complete trust and attention of our group. If she told us to paddle, we paddled. If she told us to stop, we stopped. If she told us to jump in because it was safe, then we jumped in. We did what we were told because we trusted that she knew what she was doing.
I was pretty impressed with her encyclopedic knowledge of the river. She definitely knew her stuff. One of the kids asked her how she knew so much about the river and what to do in all of the rapids, and her answer pretty much stunned me.
She said that at the beginning of the summer, all of the guides jumped into the river with just a helmet and a lifejacket. No boat, no other safety devices, just the lifejacket and helmet to get them through at least two sets of class 5 rapids and at least two-dozen other sets of class 3 and 4 rapids.
Before I could ask, the same kid asked her why she did that, and again I was stunned. She answered, while looking almost confused about the question, “how else am I supposed to be able to tell you what to do?” In other words, she believed that the only way she could teach her teams was by living and learning what she was teaching.
It actually came into play in a very real way for one of my students that day. While we were entering the second set of class 5 rapids one of our girls fell out of the raft. We slammed into the rocks at the edge of the river and she flipped out the back of the boat. This actually happened at the “photo op” set of rapids. They have a photographer set up there who takes the pictures of your group that you can buy once you get back. If you look at the picture at the top of the post, you can see her reaching out to the kids trying to get back into the boat. Here is a blown-up version of the pic:
The instant Jordan fell out, Aubie was shouting out directions to her and telling her exactly what to do. She wasn’t panicked, but her full attention was on Jordan and making sure she made it through alive. Jordan said she couldn’t really hear anything over the water, but she did what Aubie had told the group to do before we went into that set of rapids.
There is nothing new in me saying that leading by example and experience are infinitely more valuable than leading through theory. But, can you imagine what ministry would be like if we took it as seriously as Aubie and the other river guides do? If we really got into the lives of our teens and helped them to navigate their faith instead of being (mostly) content to lead from an elevated position?
I can see how this would change not only how discipleship is done in youth ministries, but how leadership in general is approached. Obviously, we cannot make ourselves go through some of the things our youth go through, but we can go first spiritually. We can take our faith to new depths and deal with the rough waters ourselves so that we can better help our students navigate. I think my Foundations of Youth Ministry Professor said it best, “You cannot lead others where you have not been yourself.”